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Senate panel sympathetic to Missouri River tribes

Tribes who lost land and a way of life due to flooding along the Missouri River found a sympathetic audience at a Senate hearing last week.

The seven tribes in North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee of the negative impacts caused by dams that were created by the federal government. Over 350,000 acres of reservation land was permanently destroyed, taking valuable natural resources, sacred sites and even entire communities.

"This result was not by our own choosing," testified Marcus Wells Jr., the chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota, which lost over 150,000 acres. "Our tribe was pressured and steamrolled into signing away our prime bottomlands in the 1940s."

Ron His Horse Is Thunder, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North and South Dakota, said Indian landowners were forced into accepting about $31 an acre in compensation from the government. In comparison, he said non-Indians who were affected by the Missouri River dams received about $60 an acre.

"I talked to a number of the elders who were alive back then and I've seen some of the records on the price they were given for their land and every time you talk to them, it brings up much sadness in their hearts," said His Horse Is Thunder, whose tribe lost about 56,000 acres. "There was no negotiation with them. It was, 'You take this,' and that's it."

The Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska lost about 600 acres, the smallest amount of those affected by the Missouri River dams. But the economic impact on the tiny tribe continues today, chairman Roger Trudell told the committee.

"There was no negotiation process at all," Trudell testified. "The lands that were taken were probably our richest lands."

Congress compensated all of the tribes for their losses. According to the Government Accountability Office, the tribes received about $46 million through legislation in the 1940s, 1950s and the 1960s.

But concerns about the inadequacy of those payments prompted further rounds of compensation the 1990s and the early 2000s. According to the GAO, another $625 million was authorized by Congress, though the money is subject to a number of restrictions..

Despite the payments, several members of the committee said they were still concerned that the tribes were not treated fairly. "Entire tribal infrastructures and economies were destroyed," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the chairman. "Their way of life changed dramatically."

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the vice chairman, said the Missouri River dams caused the "sudden relocation of entire Native communities." She drew a comparison to Alaska Native villages in her state that are facing removal due to sea erosion -- projects the GAO has said could cost hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars.

"If the community relocation is unavoidable, the true cost of relocation should be carefully evaluated in advance of the relocation and the process of the relocation should be carefully planned," Murkowski said.

According to testimony at the hearing, that didn't always happen in the case of the Missouri River. Construction of some of the dams was already underway when the tribes were told they had to settle, Robin M. Nazarro and Jeff Malcom, the director and assistant director of the GAO's Natural Resources and Environment division, told the committee.

During the 109th Congress, the committee held a hearing on bills that would address compensation for three tribes and their members. But the chairman at the time, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), was skeptical of the efforts.

"Is this the last time we are going to come back and ask for more money?" McCain said at a June 2006 hearing. "It looks to me like this is the third or fourth trip to the trough here."

The bills at issue never passed but similar packages have been introduced in the 110th Congress.

Committee Hearing/Webcast:
OVERSIGHT HEARING on the Impact of the Flood Control Act of 1944 on Indian Tribes along the Missouri River (November 1, 2007)

Missouri River Legislation:
S.160: Lower Brule and Crow Creek Tribal Compensation Act | H.R.155: Lower Brule and Crow Creek Tribal Compensation Act | H.R.478: Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Equitable Compensation Amendments Act | H.R>883: Oglala Sioux Tribe Angostura Irrigation Project Modernization and Development Act